I’ve been streaming this series lately. I had just finished both seasons of Imposters when I thought of giving Atypical a chance. The Netflix Original ties in nicely with my latest finished read. Both House Rules (Picoult) and the former centre around a teenager on the spectrum. The pair of works are commendable in their portrayals of socially-challenged boys. Like Jodi Picoult, the series creators allotted much time to research. Keir Gilchrist delivers a star-turning performance as the protagonist, Sam. The show was renewed for a fourth season and final season, which will air this year. Thus, the programme stacks up really well when compared with other such series on the platform.
Season 1 (2017)
At the start, Sam Gardner has only one friend, the green-minded Zahir. He also owns a tortoise who he named Edison after the great American inventor. Sam is dependent on his mother, Elsa. She does the housework, oversees his schedule, and drives him to school. He sees Julia, his therapist, pretty regularly and announces his intent of finding a girlfriend. His support network encourages him to go for it, admitting that he could overcome his autism and find love. He then realises that he has become fond of Julia and that he needs to find a practice girlfriend. His forays into romance are awkward, funny yet spirited. Along the way, he uses Zahir’s colourful advice.
Finding a match is difficult for someone like Sam. His whole day is organised and any change to his routine is devastating. He does not pick up on signals and non-verbal cues. He has a hard time registering emotion and talks in a monotone. Whenever he’s nervous, he would scratch his head or twiddle with his rubber band. Like other autistics, he devotes his time to one hobby in particular: penguins. Indeed, most of the eps begin with his lengthy monologues on the sea creatures. There are also heavy servings of penguin documentaries. His lack of inhibitions in talking is sometimes humorous.
Slowly but surely, he begins to untangle himself from Elsa and gets a girlfriend (Paige Hardaway). However, his inexperience and insensitivity cause the relationship to soon crumble. At school, his younger sister – Casey – initially watches over him. She is an elite runner who always starts her mornings with a run. Casey gets together with Evan, the brother of a girl that she defended. She is eventually accepted into the elite Clayton Prep. Meanwhile, Elsa feels more and more unneeded and falls into the arms of the bartender. Julia eventually becomes pregnant with her boyfriend. Regardless, the first series was eight eps long, while the next two were both ten eps each.
Season 2 (2018)
Casey catches her mum kissing, which she soon reports to their father, Doug (Michael Rapaport). The latter then kicks Elsa out of the home. He then finds doing all the housework an improbable task. Elsa is allowed back in, with some guidelines. Doug remains sour. After declaring his love for Julia, Sam is rejected. In the aftermath, Sam cannot see her any more due to a conflict of interest. He struggles to find Julia’s replacement. At the guidance counsellor’s insistence, Sam is encouraged to apply for college. He also joins a peer group comprised of students on the spectrum, prepping them for future pursuits and autonomy.
Meanwhile, Casey gets a rude awakening at Clayton. Her teammates despise her, the canteen payment system works differently, and she rocks up to class in uniform on a wash day. Nate becomes her first friend, showing her how to open her locker and buying her a pizza. She eventually becomes buddies with Izzie, the team’s resident star who’s initially mean towards her. They forge a close bond, with Casey developing feelings for Izzie and questioning her connection with Evan. With Casey’s absence from his school life, Sam turns his attention to drawing. However, he remains confused about his college preferences. Ms. Whitaker discovers his sketches and he applies to Denton University.
During graduation, Paige is unable to give her valedictory address. She had lost her voice defending her man. Sam, who finished third in their year, then reads her speech verbatim, including “pause for applause.” People are surprised at how well he delivered the address, earning him a rousing ovation. Upon introspecting, he then realises that he is in love with Paige. The season sees the creators giving more run to people on the spectrum, thus addressing the first edition’s main weakness.
Season 3 (2019)
Sam hears that four out of every five students on the spectrum fail college. Though he’s determined to flip the script, the statistic seeps into his consciousness. He has a rough start to college and rebuffs his mum’s direction to register with disability services. After being unable to take notes in one of his classes, Sam gleans that he does need help. At first, he almost fails his Socratic seminar, not being up to the task of contributing to the mandatory discussion. However, he is able to turn things around. In his sketching class, they are handed an assignment: get the essence of your subject. He squirms for weeks, until making a breakthrough.
Zahir begins dating this nutcase Gretchen, who gets in the way of their friendship. She is also clearly anti-college and has sticky fingers. Sam’s relationship with Paige struggles to beat their distance. While presenting as a content coed, Sam fails to grasp that his girlfriend is lying. Indeed, she is having a tougher time adjusting than him and survives on microwaved burritos every day. Once, they agree to a virtual dinner together, which quickly turns into a disaster. Sam learns (much later) that Paige developed an addiction for online shopping as a coping mechanism in college. She bought a kayak and two oars among others, splurging thousands. Paige then drops out of Bowdoin and works part-time as a mascot.
Casey is torn between Evan and Izzie, who stays with them for a short while. The two lasses dreamed of going to UCLA (University of California, LA) and Casey wants Evan to go with them. However, he admits that he is dyslexic. The chasm between Doug and Elsa remains. The former becomes closer to Megan, whose daughter is part of Sam’s peer group. Altogether, this is an engrossing production from a talented cast. One more penguin, please.